Russians feel left out of politics

By Chris Cloonan

“I didn’t go to election,” says Philipp, a 36-year-old Moscovite standing outside a McDonalds in the historic center of St.Petersburg, Russia. He struggles to find the right words in English to call Prime Minister Vladimir Putin an autocrat. What was the point of voting, he explains, if the result was determined before the first ballot was cast?

Philipp, who feared to give his full name, says he feels disenfranchised from the workings of the political system. He’s a vagabond who travels about Russia and continental Europe in a broken down Volkswagen plastered with stickers from 20 different countries. In Russia, Philipp says, it is money, (in Russia, the “ruble”), that talks. He cites, as example, how he bribed his way out of mandatory military service as an 18-year-old in the early 1990s.

Philipp is representative of many Russian urbanites. He’s neither tycoon nor politican. Rather, he’s an average Joe who feels powerless to influence the politics of Russia. Like of his countrymen, he feels disenfranchised and can only stand by and watch as the state strips Russians of their right to select even their own regional governors, which are now appointed by the federal government.

The growing sense of voter dillusionment are reflected in some surveys. While Putin and current President Dmitri Medvedev’s approval ratings are high by American standards, 69% and 66% respectively, their trust ratings are low and falling. The Levada Center reported that Putin and Medvedev’s trust ratings were just 41 percent and 33 percent and these figures are falling as Russia approaches it next presidential election in March of next year. Levada polled 1,600 respondents across Russia between June 23-27.

The poll also shows, as reported by the Kyiv Post (a Ukrainian newspaper), that 46 percent of the people approve of the government’s work as a whole and just 27 percent believe in the government’s ability to improve the affairs of the state.

Even Russians working in establishment jobs often feel disenfranchised. Take Anna Keampets, a writer at the St. Petersburg edition of Kommersant, an independent Russian newspaper which serves the Russian elite (the “decision makers,” as her editor put it). She, too, didn’t bother to vote in the last presidential election.

Says Keampets, “I can do nothing (being an everyday person). I don’t visit elections. (I can vote for) Putin and Medvedev, the communists, or a clown.” She says people are afraid to invest any money into an opposition party or candidate for fear of losing their livelihoods or relative security.

Keampets says even Levada’s poll numbers don’t reflect the true level of dissatisfaction with Putin. People in the countryside only have access to government controlled television, which paint Putin and Medvedev as heroes.

Says Keampets, “Maybe the numbers aren’t real because people just watch one channel. (All TV in Russia is controlled by the government). (People in) thinking spheres don’t trust TV. Rural folks watch like zombies. No thinking people like the political situation.”

Keampets and Philipp are expressing a common skepticism about Russian leaders, experts say. “A great number of people are passive,” says Adrian Selin, a professor of Russian politics at St. Petersburg State University.

Kommersant Editor Andre Ershov disagrees. He believes average Russians can change government. As example, he cites the work of his own newspaper, which recently ran a series of stories about the incompentence of the provincial leader in St. Petersburg. She failed to keep the streets safe and clear during last year’s brutal winter. Those stories eventually prompted the federal government to replace her.

Others say Ershov represents the educated elite and not average Russians. Putin “don’t give freedom as I want,” says Philipp. “Democratic is only the words.”

Prof. Selin agrees, saying there is only an illusion of democracy in Russia. While the 1993 Russian constitution offers many of the same freedoms as America they often aren’t respected in the real exercise of political power. “The parties in Parliament just want power,” says Selin.